There was a tiny creak, a flash of a brass circle moving slowly, and a rectangle in the darkess changed gradient from black to black in a number of seconds. A dark figure descended the dark stairs. The figure was slender and curvy, possessing a mane of long dark hair and peridot-green eyes that glinted in the reflection of the figure in the brass circle.
Gabrielle swallowed as she eased her feet down one by one. It was so dark. If it had been dark in the hallway, the pitch black of the downstairs floor was swallowing her up. About halfway down she missed a footing and her arm shot out to grab the banister. She missed that too, and for a moment was precariously balanced between safety and a pain in the darkness, which reminded her so horribly of a basement room she knew so well.
She regained her balance and drew a breath from deep in her chest as if drawing a wooden bucket slowly from the fathoms of an abyssal well. With a shake of relief Gabrielle continued on her dangerous journey, down the staircase into the blackness, through the black hallway, into the black kitchen, where two clean mugs and two saches of Cho Chokola, the self-heating hot chocolate drink, awaited her to carry them up to the prisoner in poor dead Dovie Dorothea Lyle's bedroom.
Gabrielle mounted the stairs again, more confidently but with no less caution as she felt with her toes for the edge of each step, and even more carefully carried the two porcelain mugs in her small white hands.
Two steps from the top, Gabrielle's quick ears caught a sudden sound. She froze, and almost immediately she heard a door a few feet along the landing brushing the carpet as it opened.
There was a pad of three footsteps, no more, no less. The footsteps paused. Gabrielle could picture her little sister peering into the blackness. She could smell fear. Dianna was terrified of the dark, and terrified of noises in the night. She could never work out which she was more afraid of.
Then there was scurrying and the door closed again. Gabrielle sighed with relief. The paranoia had overcome Di as she had expected.
Relieved that her parents and Gramps slept in the other wing up the other staircase, and so could not bother her, Gabrielle tiptoed up the next flight of stairs, pausing to listen for a moment at her sister's door. A click sounded and a yellowish light began to escape from under the door.
"Drat!" thought Gabrielle, nearly running up the remaining stairs. Dianna would be in her room reading her kiddish books or dreaming of her 'future husband' for an hour or more now, and that made it unsafe to return. Never mind. She'd have to stay in the attics till the light went off.
Grannie's rooms were at the top of the house, and Gabrielle was familiar enough with them to know exactly how to turn the doorknob even when the room was locked from inside.
She did this now, not daring to knock lest the noise reached her sister downstairs, and heard the satisfying falling of the lock. She eased the door open and slipped inside, placing the two mugs on the bureau and scanning the room for her captive.
"You came," said a male voice in a low tone.
Gabrielle inclined her head with a soft smile, ignoring her heart which was beginning to pelt with gradually increasing swiftness.
She reached out her hand and turned up the electricity lamp to a dim brightness that could not be seen under the door or through the curtains, and turned towards the male voice.
A man of nearly six foot was looming near the dormer window, ducking his head against the sloping ceiling similar to the one in Gabrielle's room downstairs. He had brown hair and grave grey eyes, which twinkled at Gabrielle but never lost their intense gravity.
"Let's sit down," suggested Gabrielle, taking up the mugs again and leading the way to where two covered armchairs sat by an open fire, long since cold and unused.
Gabrielle set the mugs down on the table and cast away the dustsheets, and the two people dropped down into the chairs and ripped open their Cho Chokola saches. The stuff bubbled up with a frothing of chemicals, and Gabrielle made a face.
"I'm sorry. It was the best I could find," she said. "I should really be giving you nice nourishing food."
Dominick shrugged as he sipped at the mug, the froth coating his upper lip in a white moustache over the top of the stubbly brown one. He was about eighteen or more. "I'm used to worse. But you can't keep this up. I can't just stay here in your house forever. I need to get money back to my family."
Gabrielle gave him a sad smile. "I'll do that if you're too busy. We should go and see them. You mum's going to be needing help."
"Not so much. Lil is still at school, and Danica is earning a fair amount. Aleks is doing well since he left in the Summer. He's still sending Mum a third of his profits, and living off the other two thirds comfortably enough. Money isn't too bad, if I give them some. It's Mum and Dad I'm worrying about. Mum is four months gone, and it's way too late for an abortion. If only she'd said sooner we'd have paid for one, got her to hospital straight away. But she was stupid."
"Don't call Marisa stupid," said Gabrielle gently.
"You can't deny how stupid she was. Although if Dad had been spending more time at his garage and home and less time at the pub she's have found a bit more courage to speak up. Now we're ruined."
"You're not ruined. It's a temporary setback," said Gabrielle.
"A temporary setback!" roared Dominick. "You think this is just a joke, don't you? When Mum has this baby, there is no going back. She has no work for another year at least, pay for care, besides feeding, clothing, schooling, keeping, everything! You don't understand! If you were born in a family like mine you'd know what having a child meant! You just can't take it so lightly!"
"Dominick," Gabrielle whispered. "Ssh. And please don't shout at me."
He turned his grey eyes back to her and they softened as they took in the tears welling in her own.
"I'm sorry," he said at last. "But you don't understand. And I don't know what to do. I couldn't stay there at home, another burden on poor Mum. But staying here and doing nothing, earning pennies after hours of labouring in unfamiliar places, is this how I'm going to help my family? Is this how I will spend the rest of my life?"
Gabrielle was silent.
"Grannie told me she was from a poor family," she said at last. "Her parents were the children of Irish immigrants from the potato famines. They had no money, no work, no food, nothing. And there were three children, all girls. None of them could earn a penny at that time, and had no hope of a good education. All they could hope to do was marry into a middle class family who had a few less anxieties."
Dominick looked grim. "Trapped in their own destinies. I know how it feels."
Gabrielle nodded. "They all married into middle to lower class families," she said. "Grannie was luckiest. Gramps was a prospering solicitor, although she told me once that they never loved one another."
Dominick flinched. "Well, my parents love one another," he said. "Dad loves us all, although he doesn't always show it. He's not very observant. He doesn't know how to do what's best for us."
"Grannie knows how it feels," she said softly. "And I loved Grannie more than any other person. And that is why you may stay in her room for as long as you like."
They parted soon after, having arrived at no conclusion, and Gabrielle spent a few moments at the window watching the stars burning bright on their eternal journeys, talking and praying to her Grannie somewhere above in a golden place where anxiety and poverty had no place.
When she returned to the room Dominick was lying in Grannie's old four-poster bed.
Gabrielle turned the lamp down, took the two empty mugs and walked across the room to the door. There, she rested her hand on the brass handle and her eyes found her way back to the four-poster bed where the six-foot figure lay so still.
"Dominick," she whispered. "I love you."
There was no reply. The blankets rose and fell to the harmony of gentle breathing. He was asleep.
She turned back to the door and slipped out, turning the handle in the special way to relock it and depositing the mugs in the bathroom next door to be dealt with some other time.
Going down the stairs, she was relieved to see that there was no light coming from under Dianna's door. Good, she was asleep.
Gabrielle was just closing her door when there was a draught of air and a rattling of a lock.
The door across the landing ten feet away opened quickly and a white face peered out. Gabrielle did have time to close her own door and the scared green eyes in her sister's face widened as she saw her sister.
"So it's you who's been prowling round at night lately!" she hissed.
"Shut up or you'll wake the parents," Gabrielle whispered.
"Don't make me laugh. They can't hear me if I shout. You're up to something," Dianna accused in rather loud tones.
"Don't be ridiculous. I've been spending some quality time with Grannie's ghost," Gabrielle said. She felt quite safe in telling half the truth. Dianna couldn't break the lock on Grannie's door. She had scarcely ever been up there. "I've been prowling round at night since before you were even thought of. I've always gone to Grannie when I need to. And the nightmares have been bad this week. So just shut up and go back to bed."
"You've been to the graveyard?" Dianna was incredulous. "You can see her ghost?"
"Idiot. Grannie's bedroom is perfectly adequate. And I cannot see her ghost. It may just be wishful thinking, but I can feel her spirit in the places she loved. Not that you care. Sophisticated personage who are best friends with the King's granddaughters do not go round hunting for ghosts."
Gabrielle retreated, leaving her sister still on the landing. She felt confident that Di wouldn't care enough about the Grannie she scarcely knew to want to go sneaking around the attic, also Di fancied herself too mature to go ghost hunting. Her little taunt had seen to that. Gabrielle hoped that she had stunned her sister enough to halt any activity in informing their parents of her nocturnal escapades.
She fell asleep with the white face of her sister's terror, the kind face of her Grannie's love, and the peaceful face of Dominick sleeping, locking inside her mind.